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Stories of fire-spitting dragons exceeding 7m (23ft) in length on Komodo Island had been circulating for some time but only in 1910 did an official of the Dutch Colonial Administration in Flores, Lieutenant Steyn van Hensbroek, mount an expedition of armed soldiers to investigate this fearsome beast. After a few days they managed to kill a Komodo Dragon and introduced this species to the western world. In 1912 the Director of the Zoological Museum in Java, Peter Ouwens, also visited Komodo and collected more specimens and formally described the species as Varanus komodoensis. Such interest was generated by this greatest of all lizards that by 1915 the Dutch government was worried about the conservation of the Komodo Dragon and issued a regulation for their protection. Two theories exist as to the reasons for such a huge lizard evolving; the traditional thinking was that the Komodo Dragon was an example of island gigantism, a biological phenomenon whereby island forms tend to evolve into larger taxa (and conversely continental forms become smaller). However recent evidence indicates that the Komodo Dragon is an ancient relict of giant lizards that evolved in Australia but became extinct with other megafauna during the Pleistocene era. Contrary to popular belief, the Komodo Dragon does not only exist on its namesake Komodo Island (which hosts an estimated population of 1,000 animals) but is also found on the nearby smaller islands of Rinca (1,000), Gili Desami (100) and Gili Motang (also 100) as well as western Flores (up to 2,000.) They have recently become extinct on Padar, probably due to extreme hunting pressure on their main prey species. The smaller islands, together totaling 603km² of land, have since 1980 been protected within Komodo National Park, a World Heritage Site. Two reserves have also recently been declared on Flores to protect the dragons. The dragons inhabit grasslands, open savanna, beaches and low elevation monsoon and mangrove forests on these dry islands. Measuring up to 3.13m (10ft 3in) and tipping the scales at an average of up to 90kg (198lbs) with a record weight of a wild individual a remarkable 166 kilograms (370lbs), (although this probably included an undigested meal), the Komodo Dragon is the super predator within its distribution. Any creature they can overcome and kill falls within their dietary range; from invertebrates and birds, fellow Komodo Dragons, right up to mammals as large as Water Buffalo and even Humans. The bulk of their diet consists of large mammals that have been introduced to the these islands, notably Timor Deer, Wild Boar, Water Buffalo as well as goats and even feral horses. This obviously begs the question of what their diet comprised before humans introduced these large mammals and some biologist believe that the dragons chief prey item was an extinct species of pygmy elephant! Komodo Dragons are exceptional amongst reptiles for their group co-operative hunting methods. Ambush is their chief method of attack and they lunge for the throat or underside of their prey, and they can knock down large mammals with their tails. They also feed extensively on carrion and their sense of smell allows them to detect a dead or dying animal up to 9.5km (5.9mi) away! For subduing such large prey, it’s not their massive claws or 60 frequently replaced, serrated teeth (that can measure up to 2.5cm (1in) in length), but their saliva that is critical. They secrete copious amounts of this liquid that is frequently blood-tinged, due to their teeth being almost completely covered by gingival tissue that is naturally lacerated during feeding. This creates an ideal culture for the over 60 strains of frightfully virulent bacteria that have been found to thrive in Komodo Dragons’ mouths. It still remains a mystery that the dragons themselves are unaffected by these bacteria. Furthermore, it has been found that Komodo Dragons have two venom glands in their lower jaw containing toxins that inhibit blood clotting, lower blood pressure, cause muscle paralysis and hypothermia, leading to loss of consciousness in envenomated prey. It is assumed that the combination of their virulent saliva and venom will immobilize any prey item that escapes the initial attack. Animals up to the size of goats are swallowed whole, this process being aided by the dragon’s loosely articulated jaws, flexible skull and expandable stomach. Nevertheless this can be a slow process despite the saliva lubricating the meal and Komodo Dragons have been observed to ram carcasses against trees (sometimes even knocking trees down in the process) to force large prey items down their throats! A small tube under their tongue is connected to their lungs allowing them to breath during this process. Chunks are torn off animals too large to swallow whole. The dragons can consume up to 80% of their body weight in a single sitting and can survive on just a dozen meals in a year! The largest male dragons assert their dominance and feed first, while the smaller individuals follow in hierarchy. Smaller males show their submission with submissive body language and loud steam train-like hisses, while dragons of similar size do resort to physical combat, the loser fleeing if he is not killed and eaten by the victor! Komodo Dragons have a breeding season, with mating taking place between May and August and egg-laying in September. Males fight each other for access to females, and also need to wrestle and immobilize the antagonistic females during coitus. They however do form pair bonds which is very unusual amongst reptiles. About 20 eggs are usually laid in Orange-footed Scrubfowl mounds or self excavated burrows and are incubated for seven to eight months, hatching in April when insects are most plentiful. Young dragons become arboreal to avoid their cannibalistic seniors and are extremely wary. Maturity is achieved after 8-9 years and their lifespan can reach 50 years. Komodo Dragons are known to perform parthenogenesis, meaning that females can lay fertile eggs that produce male offspring without any contact with males of the species. This adaptation can allow a single female to colonize an island, hatch male offspring with which it can later reproduce to produce offspring of both sexes. Komodo Dragons are unpredictable and can suddenly become aggressive. When visiting Komodo Island it is mandatory to be accompanied by a park ranger who is armed with a forked stick. With this instrument, they push any threatening dragons away by wedging the stick on the dragon’s neck. It is generally the smaller and faster subadults and females that are most dangerous. During our visit, our guide showed us scars on his knee where a young dragon had bitten him whilst he had let down his guard during a nap! A dragon bite is extremely painful and usually results in weeks of hospitalization to fight infection.